Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things Cover The God of Small Things [1997] – ★★★★★

Once in awhile a book comes your way which is so powerful in its message, so inexplicably poetic in its presentation and so wondrous in its understated emotion that you may wonder how come you have not read it yet. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is that book to me. The notable feature of the book is that it is a debut novel which won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997. It takes a cross-generational approach to tell the story, but at the heart of the plot is a pair of twins – brother and sister – seven-year old Estha and Rahel respectively – who grow up in Ayemenem, part of Kerala, India, in the late 1960s. This is a turbulent time to grow up because there is political unrest and uncertainty in the country, and financial and other hardships, as well as all kinds of injustice, are seen as just part and parcel of life. However, the twins are not concerned with the Big Things, and are eagerly anticipating the arrival of their nine-year old English cousin Sophie Mol. Her father and the twins’ uncle Chacko is welcoming his ex-wife Margaret and his daughter to India. At the height of all the excitement, however, everyone is quite oblivious to the dangers lurking just on the periphery of their lives, and these dangers seem to just wait for all the circumstances to conspire in their favour to strike the final blow into the very heart of the small lives of Ayemenem. 

The novel starts with a thirty-one year old Rahel returning to the house of her childhood in Ayemenem. Her purpose it to visit her twin brother Estha, and, while there, she starts to recall the events that happened just before and after the arrival of her cousin Sophie Mol to India. The story makes references to the communist movement in the region (there are some evident communist characters), and the author also makes powerful observations on the issues of castle, discrimination, gender inequality, colonialism, religion and politics. Even though all these issues are important elements to telling this story, I would still like to focus in my review on a particular family at hand. The characters of this story are just family members who try to make sense of their life situation, standing in their community and purpose in life, while they live in and call home a “forgotten” region of India, where poverty and deprivation are as common as May heat and river tides. The readers really get an all-around picture of the situation in the story because the novel does not concentrate on just one main character. In that way, we get to know the story of Chacko, the twins’ uncle, and his relationship with his ex-wife Margaret, the story of Baby Kochamma, the twins’ grand-aunt and her early love disillusionments, as well as the story of Pappachi, the twins’ grandfather.

The first fascinating thing to note is that the book events are often portrayed through the eyes of the children in a way that we see the world of the grown-ups colliding with the world of children to produce some disastrous results. In that way, the novel now slightly reminds of Donna Tartt’s novel The Little Friend [2002], where the young protagonist also has to face some grim consequences of the societal injustice. Also, as in Tartt’s novel, nearly every adult in The God of Small Things is presented as more or less already broken, and there are some very vivid descriptions of the place. And, The God of Small Things is a very rich in colour and sensation novel, which totally transports its readers to the “Heart of Darkness” or India. For example, in the very first paragraph there are sentences to describe Ayemenem in May: “The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst” [Roy, 1997: 1]. The Metaphors, as well as the almost poetic language which Roy uses to describe her heroes of filth, poverty and loss, are very admirable. There are such lines in the novel as “strange insects appeared like ideas in the evening” [1997: 10];and “Filth had laid siege to the Ayemenem house like a medieval army advancing on an enemy castle” [Roy, 1997: 88]. To describe the character Estha, Roy states “…a dark brown man…Chocolate with a twist of coffee. High cheekbones and hunted eyes. A fisherman in a white-tiled bathroom, with sea-secrets in his eyes” [1997: 91].

Another prominent theme of the novel is the Small vs. Big allusion. In Roy’s book, there is a constant contrast being drawn between smallness and largeness, such as “The Small Thin Man and the Big Fat Man” [Roy, 1997: 280]. The author desires to emphasise the smallness of the lives of people living in Ayemenem, their inconsequential existence in comparison to the Big Things around them, such as the power of authority, the immensity of poverty, the hopeless socio-economic conditions, the unfair rigid traditions and conventions, and the weight of history. The people in Ayemenem can hardly have any meaningful control over their lives – beyond being in control of “the small things”. The only way they can somehow rise above their smallness is by moving away. However, as the novel suggests, even that does not always result in happy endings, and the characters are stuck in the endless cycle of silent despair and exasperation in the land that does not know what it is anymore and even forgot what it supposed to be.

The History and the particular conditions in which people are raised speak and take actions for the characters in the novel, but the characters are still capable of finding delight in small things (which they can still control and in relation to which they can still feel their significance). They are, probably, the characters’ coping mechanisms. The twins, Rahel and Estha, are the great pretenders who live in their own small world of Elvis Presleys, films and river swims, and some of the adults in the story also follow suit. For example, Baby Kochamma introduces herself to the power of TV and even Oxford-educated Chacko finds relief in small objects, for example, in his small airplanes that do not really fly.

This preoccupation with small objects in the novel is not accidental since the point of Roy is to tell the characters’ story from their own point of view, and it is the small objects in the story which speak the loudest. The objects may be the source of happiness in the novel, but they also hint at the familial and societal disintegration, such as the sky-blue Plymouth that belongs to the family. It represents the family’s Anglophile dreams and ambitions, but also, later, hints at the decline of hopes. The rotten and abandoned Paradise Pickles & Preserves signboard on the Plymouth becomes the symbol of the family’s resignation and complete retreat to the realm of the imagined. Apart from small things, the source of elation for some characters is one man Velutha, a community outcast and a doomed carpenter who provides some characters with the joys of simple friendship. He is also the man who equips the characters with small things to take their delight in, such as with bows and fishing nets.

Memory is another predominant theme in The God of Small Things. There is a sense of childhood trauma on the twins’ part, and the impossibility to forget and make peace with the past haunt the present day life. Roy makes acute observations on the nature of memory saying “Memory was that woman on the train. Insane in the way she sifted through dark things in a closet and emerged with the most unlikely ones – a fleeting look, a feeling. The smell of smoke. A windscreen wiper. A mother’s marble eyes” [Roy, 1997: 72]. In the story, things left unsaid and words not forgotten play a part in the present disintegration of the characters. There is a lack of ambition on the part of Estha and a lack of direction on the part of Rahel. The book sometimes rushes forward through the years, and, at other times, slows down to concentrate on a particular event, such as Estha’s meeting with the Orangedrink Lemondrink man. The story also may start with the family’s trip to the cinema only to then start commenting on the twins’ education or Rahel’s later life in New York. This writing style is much like the memory itself too which recalls moments, but not days, and which picks up random pieces and tries to join them together.

The other way to understand and appreciate this novel is by focusing on the concept of subtlety since this is everywhere in Roy’s novel. The less explanation there is, the more meaning there is to uncover. The novel’s “landmarks” – “the river”, “the boat”, “the temple” and “the History House” take their roles in a whimsical play in the Heart of Darkness. And all lead to The Terror. If he touched her he couldn’t talk to her, if he loved her he couldn’t leave, if he spoke he couldn’t listen, if he fought he couldn’t win[Roy, 1997:217]. The story is filled with subconscious truths to be discovered, and there are the horror and deeper meaning to be found beneath appearances and silly names. This impression is so powerful that, by the end of the book, the most ordinary sentences, such as “at the police station, Inspector Thomas Mathew sent for two Coca-Colas. With straws” [Roy, 1997: 217] become imbued with that horrifying sinking feeling. Two. Straws. Coca-Cola. It somehow says it all. The Unimaginable. The Terror.

Arundhati Roy takes much liberty with the book’s structure, the timeline of events, and with the language, but her eccentric approach to this book works wonderfully and produces magic. The author uses a number of stylistic techniques to make her story even more powerful, for example, through repeated sentences and, generally, through the close interconnection between the story, and the language and structure used to tell it. The non-linear plot makes the story more intriguing and enticingly complex, and the repeated sentences (almost mantras) reinforce the key messages and the cohesiveness of the story, such as the repeated “Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age” [Roy, 1997: 3, 92, 161].

One of the most impressive things about this novel is that the writing style tells as much about the story as the narrative. There are special links that exist between the story and the language. In The God of Small Things, the characters are preoccupied with the small things, and the author too becomes focused on using small sentences, and small words, and even the book chapters have as their titles – small things, such as Pappachi’s moth and Cochin kangaroos. The characters in the novel engage in a repetitive behaviour and the text also recycles its sentences. In this way, there is a feeling as though the story was really written by the lead people in the novel, including the children. The author has covered all the drama and trauma of the story with the small things, and, much like the characters in the novel, we do not necessarily get the true horror of the situation as we read about river swims and insects hunting. Only later do we realise the extent of what was happening, much like the twins when they grow up.

The novel does not put much emphasis on individual characters, but that mere fact only reinforces the idea of how inconsequential their identities and lives are. Stripped of their individuality through hardship, in some way, their coping mechanisms take precedence over their own character development. Who are the twins, for example? Their Excellencies Ambassador E(lvis). Pelvis, and Ambassador S(tick). Insect. These silly names make the pair somehow even more sympathetic, too ordinary and relatable, and also – too vulnerable to the threats they have no ability to take under control. Thus, the book has humorous passages, but despite the uplifting tone, The God of Small Things is melancholy. It is too frank about the socio-economic conditions of people, especially females, in India. The author states that some people there have looks which are “somewhere between indifference and despair,” since in the places they come from “various kinds of despair compete… for primacy” [Roy, 1997: 19].

The book probably needs a little patience at the beginning because the narrative may be slightly off-putting and the story introduces characters and events which the reader cannot yet connect to the broader theme. However, after some reading, The God of Small Things does become unputdownable, and the ending feels complete and thought-provoking. In it, the indifference, the ignorance and the fear become the impetuses which give birth to the Horror, and the message also hints at the futility of separating the inseparable.

The conclusion is that The God of Small Things is powerful in every way and effortlessly masterful. The novel is a deep and emotionally-complex book underneath, and represents a touching tribute to India’s “small lives”. Suffused with the melancholy themes of memory, loss, love and hope, it is a timeliness piece of writing of some extraordinary beauty. It is a cliché to call something a masterpiece, but, in some way, this book really is.

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